‘The Invitation’: If Your Friends Were in a Cult, Would You Be Too Polite To Speak Up?

“Are all your friends on Facebook selling Plexus?” my wife asked me the other night, throwing me for a bit of a loop. “Selling what?” I replied, and she handed over her laptop, her newsfeed open, filled as promised with high school classmates spouting the life-changing possibilities of an item that, on first mention, sounded like a muscle I should be paying attention to during my nonexistent workouts. (“We’re gonna work your plexus today,” grunts my imaginary trainer. His name is Brad.) She described the product: it’s reportedly a nutritional/weight-loss supplement, but its distribution and sale are apparently some sort of pyramid scheme that has shaken her Midwestern friend network to its core. “But it’s not just that they’re all selling it,” she explained. “It’s the way they’re selling it, how they’re all using the same language, spouting it like some kind of religion or something.”

“Or a cult,” I replied. She gave me a look that indicated she agreed, but y’know, didn’t wanna say it. What does this little anecdote have to do with Karyn Kusama’s gripping psychological thriller The Invitation, you might reasonably ask? Maybe nothing. But when protagonist Will (Logan Mashall-Green) has finally had enough of an uncomfortably oddball dinner party, where the hosts are clearly kooks trying to “introduce” their old friends to what is quite obviously a cult, and he demands to know of his friends, “Why’s everyone acting so fuckin’ polite?”

It’s a question we didn’t have to ask as often in the pre-social media days, when friends who went off the deep end just kind of disappeared. But now they’re liking your photos and commenting on your links, and then you start reading their feeds and some of them are Scientologists and some of them are born-agains and some of them are anti-vaxxers and, good God, some of them are Trump supporters. And these are not people you can debate, that’s useless, so you just end up quietly unfollowing them. The Invitation is a movie about what happens when that’s not really an option.

It takes place over the course of one long night in Los Angeles, at a dinner party at the home of Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and David (Michiel Husiman). They’ve invited all of Eden’s college friends – including her ex-husband Will, who’s brought along his new girlfriend Kiera (Emayatzy Corinealdi). Will and Eden ended badly; their young son died, and Eden tried to kill herself. On their way to the party, Will’s car hits a coyote and he has to put the animal out of its misery with a tire iron. Not foreboding at all.

“We have so much to celebrate tonight,” their hosts insist with suspiciously wide smiles; reintroductions are made, inside jokes and shared histories are referenced (“Late as usual!”). Soon enough, Eden is pulling Will aside to tell them how she’s now “different” and “free” and rid of “all that useless pain” and “You can have it, Will!” And then they break out the video, all about the new way of life they’ve discovered. Did I mention the old college crew is supplemented by a hippie girl named Sadie (enjoy your Manson connotations) and their “friend” Pruitt, played by John Carroll Lynch, aka THE FUCKING ZODIAC? Nope, nothing to worry about here!

“Is this some kind of recruitment video?” asks one of the friends, and they all laugh – but with an edge. “They’re in a cult!” another says in private, but no, no, someone else knows “plenty of people who are in The Invitation.” It’s all fine, everyone’s on their own journey, “yeah, they’re a little weird, but this is LA. They’re harmless.” Yet slowly, over the course of this long night, Will becomes convinced that they’re anything but.

The brilliance of vice-grip direction by Kusama (Girlfight) and Phil Hay and Matt Manfriedi’s wickedly efficient script is in how difficult any of this is to lock down. It’s situated very much from Will’s perspective, so the things he sees and hears seem to validate his paranoia – and then something happens that can explain his concerns away. It’s ruthless, the degree to which The Invitation toys with you, overwhelming the narrative with a mood of slipperiness and unsteadiness, so that when the final turn comes, it feels both tenuous and inevitable. The sly winks that have come before – to Manson, to Jonestown, to Heaven’s Gate – could’ve been just that: asides, red herrings. Or they could’ve been blaring sirens, red flags, which we simply brushed aside. That’s our way. Don’t wanna be impolite.

The Invitation is out Friday in limited release and on demand.